Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Astonishing Debut from the Next World Music Star

Remember this name: Mavrothi Kontanis. You heard it here first. In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums of Greek songs, with a cd release show at Alwan for the Arts this Friday, June 13 at 9. The first, Sto Kafesli Sokaki is an alternately haunting and rousing collection of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot songs from the 1920s and 30s influenced by the influx of refugees from Turkey who brought their slinky shakecharmer music with them in the years after World War I. The second, the ironically titled Wooden Heart also includes a mix of sensationally good, vintage obscurities along with several equally superb original songs. While Kontanis’ core audience will obviously be those who speak the Greek and Turkish of the lyrics on these two cds, any adventurous listener, anywhere in the world will find each of them an irresistible melodic feast. It’s impossible to imagine anyone hearing one of these albums without wanting the other.

As a player, Kontanis has sensational chops: he’s in the same league as Simon Shaheen, but more terse, less inclined to wild excursions than meticulously plotted conspiracies among the notes. More often than not, he leaves it to the band to embellish the melodies, especially violinist Megan Gould, who serves as lead instrumentalist for the most part here since many of the songs on Sto Kafesli Sokaki are basically a duo between her and Kontanis. Clarinetist Lefteris Bournias – whose breathtaking, lightning-fast solo on Arapina, from the first cd shows off his scorching chops – with politiki lyra player Phaedon Sinis and somewhat ubiquitous percussionist Timothy Quigley (who propels the delightfully fun Chicha Libre) round out the cast.

Disabuse yourself of any preconceptions you may have about Greek music: this isn’t what you’d typically hear in your average taverna in Astoria on a Saturday night. Rather, it harkens back to the era just before the psychedelic, hash-smoking, politically charged music known as rebetika emerged in the Greek resistance underground in the late 20s and 30s. Both the originals and the covers on these two albums blend the hypnotic ambience of Levantine dance music with the often savage chromaticism of Turkish and gypsy music, set to a tricky, circular Mediterranean beat. Most of it is dark and pensive: highlights of the first cd include the viscerally anguished Armenita as well as Etsli Marika Dhehome, featuring a pointillistically incisive solo from Anastassia Zachariadou on kanun (a sort of Mediterranean zither, similar to the cimbalom, played with mallets to produce a pinging, staccato sound, like an amplified harpsichord but with more reverb). Ouzo is a deliberately maudlin number, Kontanis’ amusingly over-the-top vocal rendition of the narrator’s beer goggles (or, in this case, ouzo goggles) making them obvious even to non-Greek speakers.

Wooden Heart (referring to what an oud is made of) is where Kontanis’ heart is, an equal display of soul and chops. The opening cut, Wooden Kite soars and crescendoes imaginatively; Kontanis opens the shape-shifting, violin-fueled original Nikriz Longa with a thoughtful, incisive taksim (solo improvisation) as he does onstage with most of his material, including the following instrumental Ushak Saz Semal.

To Kontanis’ immense credit (at least to Western ears), it’s next to impossible to distinguish his originals from the archival gems on these albums (where he found them is anyone’s guess – and probably the equivalent of a doctorate worth of digging). For fans of great bands like Magges, Luminescent Orchestrii and the aforementioned Simon Shaheen’s older work, as well as anyone caught up in the gypsy music craze, both these cds are must-owns. What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.

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June 10, 2008 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Mesmerizing Intensity: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/14/08

The Barbes website billed them as “probably the best Greek ensemble around,” high praise from a generally reliable source. For once, putting cynicism on hold paid off: Mavrothi Kontanis and his spectacular backup band are the real deal. With gypsy music the flavor du jour (let’s hope it becomes the flavor du siecle), all the other hauntingly danceable Mediterranean and Balkan genres, from klezmer to Levantine dance music, are picking up the spillover and the result lately has been an abundance of excellent bands from all of these styles playing more New York shows for English-speaking audiences. In an era dominated, at least in the mainstream, by prissy indie rock and bellowing corporate grunge drivel, this is an encouraging development. Let’s hope it continues.

By stroke of sheer good fortune, at least from a spectator’s point of view, this was the band’s last show with Anastassia Zachariadou, their phenomenal kanun (a sort of cross between a zither and a cimbalom) player who was leaving for Greece the next day. Perhaps for this reason, the band was especially charged up. Or maybe this is just the way they play every time out. Kontanis, the frontman, played oud while singing in both Greek and Turkish. Megan Gould provided eerie sheets of sound on violin, percussionist Timothy Quigley provided a fluidly swinging, hypnotic beat and clarinetist Lefteris Bournias brought a breathtakingly ecstatic, Coltrane-esque intensity to the music.

The band opened inauspiciously with an original, an instrumental about kites (why is it that kites inspire some of the most insipid songs ever written? Kites Are Fun, anybody? And triple bonus points if you were ever tortured by Private Lightning and actually remember who they were). But they turned up the flames after that and kept them burning for the rest of the show. The next instrumental, also an original, began with a long, ominous, slowly crescendoing solo from Zachariadou and she kept it going for all it was worth, holding both the audience and her bandmates rapt with amazement. They built it slowly, the violin doubling the oud, later adding the first of several blazingly fast, intense, microtonal clarinet solos from Bournias.

Kontanis explained how the next tune, Ouzo, a drinking song from the late 1920s reflected its narrator’s “beer muscles,” as he put it. This one sounded nothing like the song by the same title that the wildly popular New York Greek revivalists Magges have made their own; rather, the drunk in this rather dark tune lets it all hang out, shamelessly: in ouzo veritas. The rest of the set was was one haunting, mesmerizing rembetiko song after another (rembetiko, or rebetika, is a darkly psychedelic style with eerie Turkish and Middle Eastern influences that originated in the Greek resistance underground in the 1920s). Kontanis would often open a song with an improvised intro (or taksim, as it’s called in Arab music) on his oud, Bournias and Zachariadou bringing the songs to a flying crescendo with several lightning-fast solos. As Kontanis explained, one of them was a lament sung from the point of view of a man rejected by a woman because he’s not rich enough for her blood – his response is that what he has, money can’t buy. Another took the opposite point of view, a suitor calculating what he can buy – in a lyrical tour through the neighborhoods of 1930s Athens – with his bride’s money. Kontanis finally closed the show tersely with a quiet, brief, somewhat unsettling sketch.

If dark chromatic melodies don’t scare you off, if you don’t think that people who listen to music from other cultures are “weird” – then again, you wouldn’t be reading this if you did – get to know this amazing band. The only drawback about this evening was that it wasn’t possible to stick around to see Chicha Libre play what promised to be a typically energizing, danceable show afterward.

April 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magges Live at Mehanata, NYC 1/12/08

[editor’s note: this is a half-assed review, although it’s the best we could do under the circumstances. Greek songwriters are known for their excellent lyrics and acerbic social commentary, and since we don’t have any native Greek speakers on staff, this review is limited to the band’s music. If any Greek speakers want to comment on the band here – in English, please – be our guest]

As a casual glance at just about any city courthouse will tell you, earlier generations of Americans were in love with everything Greek. The time has come for a new generation of Americans to discover what is perhaps Greece’s finest export: its music. A cynic might say that you can hear what Magges does in any taverna in Astoria on the weekend, but that’s not true. Magges is Greek slang for “bad guys,” which is something of an understatement: this band is positively evil. It was particularly appropriate to see them play at Gogol Bordello’s home base, since they share that band’s wild exuberance and unbridled passion. The place was packed, lots of people were dancing and taking shots from the ouzo bottles that the band very generously brings along to every show. Every New Yorker should experience this band at least once: they’re that good.

In a marathon set that went on for what seemed like hours, they played a wildly danceable mix of Greek vocal music from the past several decades, big major-key arenaesque ballads and long dance numbers burning with chromatic fire that went on for practically ten minutes apiece. Frontman Kyriakos “Chuck” Metaxas played exhilarating, fast runs on his electric bouzouki, accompanied by an acoustic bouzouki player, the ubiquitous Steve Antonakos on acoustic guitar, the also somewhat ubiquitious Susan Mitchell on violin as well as upright bass and percussion. And a belly dancer who got the crowd on their feet.

Metaxas sings in the somewhat dramatic, stagy style that’s characterized Greek pop for what seems forever. A lot of their songs utilize unorthodox time signatures and turn on the drop of a dime, but the band tackled the changes effortlessly. Even to foreign ears, several of the songs were recognizable, foremost among them a scorching, bouzouki-driven take of the original vocal song that Dick Dale appropriated and turned into Misirlou. Magges’ strongest suit is rembetiko, a dark, Middle Eastern-inflected style of stoner music that originated in the Greek underground resistance movement in the 1930s and 40s, and they played several of these. They also did their signature song, Ouzo, an upbeat, somewhat pastoral anthem that predictably got the crowd roaring. The only problem was the sound: the thud from the downstairs disco was painfully audible during quieter moments, and it was only then that Mitchell – one of the most captivating soloists around – could be heard. The chime and clang of the bouzoukis, guitar and bass was delicious, but Magges without Mitchell isn’t the same.

January 13, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments